A Yew for You
Written by Dr. Klaus L.E. Kaiser
Yew bushes are quite common in gardens as ornamental shrubs and hedges. They are liked for being hardy, and soil and moisture tolerant evergreens. In addition, the have nice red berries in the fall.
Please note: the orange/red juicy fruits are quite palatable but have poisonous seeds in the center. Their poison was already known two millennia ago (Taxus baccata) and appeared to be the choice of soldiers to die when not wanting to fall alive into the hands of the enemy.
The plant (Taxus sp.) is widespread across the mid latitudes of all continents in the northern hemisphere. Some related species are also found south of the equator, like in New Zealand and Sumatra. To my knowledge though, the yews are more solitary and never found in any sizeable plant assemblage. Rather they are found interspersed in other mixed and coniferous woods, one plant here and another there.
Given enough time, the yew bushes can grow into mid-sized trees, with some a thousand years old or more. That’s what made them rather sought after at certain times—and for quite different reasons.
In former Times
In former times the wood of older yew trees (knot-free, of course), was the preferred material for the manufacture of long-bows. In medieval times, such bows and skilled archers shooting arrows were an important component of warfare.
Prior to the invention of laminated wood, the strength and elasticity of yew wood was unsurpassed, making it the material of choice for longbows at the time (Native Bow Woods/ ). Even today, good (wooden) bows still are made of it.
That desirability (together with the constant need of the armies) led to a shortage of good yew wood in England. In turn, clever merchants scoured all of Europe to locate and procure this vital material. In fact, these merchants, so historians claim, even came to the alpine backwoods of southern Bavaria then, to get that wood for the archers back home to—believe it or not—fight the Barbarians on the Continent. I don’t know if this is true or not, but you won’t find many wild yew trees left in Germany, even now.
Once that longbow archery was no longer the weaponry of choice, the yew wood and its superior properties fell into a long slumber of neglect, like the maiden in the fable of the Sleeping Beauty. Yews, longbows and the whole art of archery had become some silly medieval play fantasies.
Then, a few years ago, the interest in yews re-awakened—or an entirely different reason.
In modern Times
Other merchants scoured the woods again for yew trees, this time primarily in Western Canada. The reason was a novel one; it wasn’t the wood, but rather the bark that was sought after!
Some scientists claimed to have found important medicinal properties among its components (especially the compound taxol, marketed as Paclitaxel) and this novel “elixir of health and longevity” was only available (at considerable cost) from old-growth yew trees.
Thus, a new “Gold-Rush” was born, well, I mean a new “Yew-Rush.”
Any old yew tree that was easily found got harvested for its bark and the wood left to rot. It ought not to be a surprise then, in the Canadian Province of British Columbia, old yews are hard to find now, just as in Europe.
However, the yews’ problem doesn’t end here. There is yet another problem they experience. That’s the new “neighborhood-menace,” I mean deer, like the whitetail variety that wanders the local grounds, on some winter days in several groups, all in search of some nourishment.
The newest Menace
As mentioned, the yew plants grow rather slowly. I can confirm this from my own observations. With two yew bushes in the front yard and another in the backyard, I’ve been wondering for years (really decades) already, are they still alive?
Of course, in mid or late winter, with all the white stuff, the (then) still green and soft leaves of the yews are just the right nourishment for the deer. Other than yews, there isn’t much else they can nibble on anyways. So, our poor yews get chewed, night and day, by the local deer. You can see the effect for months after that in the form of brown twigs as the deer don’t just bite off a twig. No, they prefer to strip off the bark and green needles (leaves), leaving behind a dried-out, dead twig end.
But the yew is a hardy plant, used to such attacks and sends out new shoots and branches as needed. Come fall, the bushes look just as healthy as a year ago. And when snow covers the ground, the deer are once again happy to find some green browse.
Still, I wonder, why do the deer seem to prefer OUR yew bushes over those of our neighbors?
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